The beaver needed no encouragement. After a 500-mile road trip from the banks of a Scottish river to a hidden valley on the edge of England’s rolling South Downs, the sights and smells of a woodland pond were all it took.
As soon as his straw-lined travel crate was opened, the creature padded out, glided smoothly into the water and began a careful examination of his new home.
From time to time he plunged underwater, leaving a trail of bubbles and a bow wave. He checked out a lodge that had been fashioned by rangers from straw bales and a sheet of corrugated iron and then went back to completing stately laps of the pool.
“It feels like quite a day,” said David Elliott, the National Trust’s lead ranger for South Downs West. “When we got to the edge of the water, he was having a really good look, smelling the pond, trying to figure it out. You could tell he really wanted to get into the water.”
Beavers were hunted to extinction in the UK four centuries ago for their fur, meat and scent glands. In recent years there has been a series of controlled reintroductions, plus some unregulated ones.
This one very much belonged to the first category, and Elliott was quietly moved at the sight of a lost animal returning to the English countryside. “We have that expression, ‘Gone but not forgotten’, which seems quite poignant at the moment,” he said. “But actually this animal had been gone for so long it had been forgotten. We’d forgotten not only the animal, but the effect it has on wetland systems.
“Beavers are nature’s water engineers – they can help bring back the natural processes missing from our environment. By building their dams, beavers create new and wildlife-rich wetlands; ponds, rivulets and boggy areas.” By thinning out trees, they also bring in more light, and with it more flora and fauna – birds, invertebrates, other mammals. “They’ll help us create a pyramid of life,” said Elliott.
A few hours later, a second beaver – a female – followed the same path into the water. “We hope they will breed and a family group will manage the habitat for us,” said Elliott.
The trust has asked for the site of the beavers’ new home not to be revealed to give them a chance to settle. They are fenced in, but have a large enclosure of around 15 hectares full of streams and ponds to work away in.
Buzzards hovered above and a few bees danced in the adjacent meadows as the beavers settled. “It’s a beautiful place and already has some interesting wildlife,” said Elliott, “but we hope they’ll modify it and turn it into something really outstanding.”
In other parts of the country there have been signs that dams build by reintroduced beavers can help stop flooding. Because the South Downs beavers live close to the head of the catchment, they will probably not have such an impact.
Once settled, the beavers will build a lodge or burrow if they are not satisfied with the one provided and modify their surroundings to suit their needs, allowing them to move freely through the water and access food. They are herbivores and so will not be preying on fish or other animals.
This is the first release by the trust in south-east England, following the successful pilot at Holnicote on Exmoor in Somerset last year, where the beavers have thrived.
The South Downs programme will be carefully monitored by research partners at Imperial College London, the University of Birmingham and the University of Exeter.
Though there is resistance to the presence of the beavers from some landowners, especially in Scotland, the trust said it had received huge support from local people in the South Downs.
The project has been funded in part by the Black Down and Hindhead Supporters of the National Trust, which raised £62,000, and Viridor Credits Environmental Company, a non-profit organisation that provides cash for community, heritage and biodiversity projects.
Area ranger Sarah Fisk, who carried the metal crate containing the beaver down to the water’s edge with Elliott, said the creature made a “majestic” sight. “He couldn’t wait to get into the water. He was very much the eager beaver,” she said.